The Labyrinth – what is it?

The word ‘labyrinth’ is often used to describe anyone caught up in a tangle of relationships or to the experience of entering a dark place and not being able to find a way out. The word has been used to describe a city with winding lanes and deadends or a mystery that needs to be solved. It can be seen as the same as a maze. But it is not a maze.

So what is the difference between a maze and a labyrinth?

A maze is a puzzle. You can come to a junction where the choice is to go right or go left. You can get lost. You may have to puzzle your way out. Mazes date back about four hundred years when our Western culture was moving out of a more mythic way of thinking and into what is usually called the Age of Enlightenment, when a more rational, analytic, scientific way of thinking was in favour. So to find your way out of a maze you need to use your mental abilities.You need to puzzle your way out. Some would say you use your left brain to do this. If you do this successfully you feel as though you are in control.

A labyrinth is a far more ancient pattern. As you follow the path that coils inside the circle, you’re taken from right to left and sometimes forced to turn around to face the way you came. It can be disorienting. But the path always takes you to the centre. On the way out you walk a mirror image of the path you followed on the way in. You cannot get lost unless of course you become distracted and step off the path like Dorothy and her friends on the yellow brick road. You may have shifted to using your right brain – and this allows images, words, feelings or memories to emerge from a deeper part of you. This can be surprising and can be very helpful.

For some reason moderns are drawn to this ancient path. Some find that the busy mind can settle down and become more peaceful. Perhaps the pattern and the walking resonates with the rhythms of the body. Some find that it takes them out of the rational mind and that a deeper knowing gives them an answer to their questions. When the labyrinth is set out in a bushland setting, walking can bring a feeling of harmony with nature.

There are many labyrinth patterns in use today but over the centuries two main patterns are found. The first is known as the classical labyrinth. It is an ancient pattern found on coins or drawn on walls like graffiti, or set out in stones on the ground in wild seashore places in Scandinavia. This labyrinth is associated with Crete. It can also be known as ‘the Walls of Troy’ or the ‘Walls of Jerusalem’ depending on where or in which century it was laid out.

It is a simple pattern to draw or to lay out in a garden. Looking at this pattern reminds us of the regular whorls and circles found in nature: in seashells, in a spider web, in a fingerprint.

The other main pattern in use today is more complex It is often known as the Chartres Labyrinth because it can be seen and walked on the floor of Chartres Cathedral which is about one hour by train from Paris. This pattern was built into the floor in the 12th – 13th century, probably by the architects and builders who wanted to make their mark and say ‘This is our work’. The word ‘work’ in Latin is ‘laborare’ hence the name labyrinth. The builders adapted the pattern from earlier forms found in Celtic circles and Roman floor mosaics.

The Chartres Labyrinth is designed as a form of sacred geometry. Numbers and measure were thought to mirror the dimensions of a spiritual world not visible to the human senses. The Greek philosophers, Pythagoras and Plato, thought of Geometry and Number, the act of measuring the earth, as an activity that mirrors the invisible world and brings the visible world and the sacred into a harmony. The mediaeval builders were influenced by this belief because of their own understanding of Christ Jesus as bringing order and harmony into our vital and energetic world. In the design of the Labyrinth heaven and earth are in harmony. Those who walk the Labyrinth can also experience this harmony in themselves.

The Chartres Labyrinth is designed around a cruciform shape, a vertical East – West line and a horizontal North –South line. Within a circle the walker is following a path to the centre; to the axis of the lines, but is continually meeting a barrier, which turns her around 180 degrees to face another direction or leads from one side across to the other. The walker is continually disoriented, but trusts that the path always leads to the centre.

Many people who come to walk this labyrinth may pause at the entrance with a question or a difficult life choice that is worrying them. Like the ancient Delphic Oracle, the answer may eventually come from their own inner wisdom.

Labyrinth circles are constructed in many places these days – in parks, hospitals, churches and in the bush. Walking the labyrinth gives a sense that you are walking in a sacred space. That sacred space is the earth and it is your own self.

We are walking on Sacred Ground
Let our hearts take off their shoes
And come bare, trembling with awe,
Into the Presence which burns bright
And too close for ordinary vision.

Only a naked heart can see
That all around us, each clump of grass,
Every leaf, twig, stone and flower,
is a blazing torch, incandescent
with the one fire which has no name
except “I Am”.

Poem-psalm by Joyce Cowley

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